Olga Spessivtseva (1895-1991)

The story of Olga Spessivtseva is the saddest I have known. Although she was born into a prosperous family, her father's death imposed financial hardships on the family, and Olga was sent to an orphanage. At the age of ten she became a student at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. Here she found the order and discipline that she needed in her life. A shy, withdrawn child, Olga dedicated her existence to ballet. She graduated in 1913 and became a soloist in the ballet company in1916.

Although she did not support Serge Diaghilev's ideas about dance, in 1916 she agreed to replace Tamara Karsavina on the American tour of The Ballets Russes. When she returned to Russia in 1918, she was promoted to Prima Ballerina. Here she had her chance to dance Giselle for the first time. For many, Spessivtseva was the perfect Giselle, her flawless dancing and air of vulnerability eclipsing even the interpretation of Pavlova.

Spessivtseva's fragile health and the deprivations of the Russian Revolution contributed to her contracting tuberculosis circa 1919. By 1921 she had regained her strength, and rejoined the Ballets Russes in London to dance Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Princess. The ballet was a financial failure, but when Spessivtseva returned to her homeland, she danced Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and was a great success.

In 1924 she left Russia for the last time and became the star of the Paris Opera Ballet. She had problems with the management and left in 1927 to briefly dance again for the Ballets Russes. Afterward she returned to the Paris Opera, where she danced Salomé and created a role in Serge Lifar's Creatures of Prometheus.

The invitation to dance Odette in the second act of Swan Lake at Covent Garden induced Spessivtseva to return to Diaghilev's company in 1929. He also promised Spessivtseva he would revive Giselle for her. Diaghilev's death shattered her. She did get a chance in 1932 to dance Giselle again in the Camargo Soviet production at the Savoy Theatre. This heralded the revival of native classical ballet in England.

Spessivtseva's fanatical perfectionism often caused her trouble and cancellations of contracts. In 1934 she toured Australia, again eclipsing memories of Pavlova. Spessivtseva gave her farewell performance in Buenos Aires in 1937. The coming war in Europe brought her to America to live. Here she became an advisor to a new company -- Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre).

In 1940 she had a mental breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital in New Jersey. The hospital knew nothing of her past. For some time she was believed dead by many of her colleagues. Anton Dolin, Dale Fern and Felia Doubrovska managed to have her moved to the Tolstoy Farm in Valley Cottage, NY, where she died in 1991.

Of her Giselle it was said, "She danced not for herself, not for an audience, but for Dance itself."

(First published February 1996)

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